Several thousand people braved a cold, sloshy day in downtown Raleigh on Saturday to hear calls for action to stand up for the rights of those often on the outside looking in on institutions long dominated by prosperous white men.
The Women’s Rally on Raleigh filled much of Halifax Mall, the grass expanse at the center of the state government complex. Signs were so numerous they made it difficult for many to see who was speaking, but the crowd cheered loudly at what they heard.
“Listen, can’t you hear it? The tick tock of that clock,” MaryBe McMillan, the first woman president of the AFL-CIO’s North Carolina federation, told the crowd. “Sexism, racism, homophobia – time’s up, never again. Together we win, justice will win.”
It was mostly a female audience, but many men dotted the crowd in solidarity. Speakers also advocated for minorities; lesbian, gay and transgender people; undocumented immigrants and those who face religious persecution.
“I understand that I’m very privileged and so I’m here to support those who don’t have what I have, because their fights are not over,” said Erich Hess, a junior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math who is from Smithfield. He was among roughly 25 students from the Durham-based school who ponied up for a bus to take them to the rally.
The rally marks the first anniversary of women’s marches across the country in protest of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Last year, organizers estimated about 17,000 participated in the Raleigh march. They said roughly 6,500 attended Saturday’s rally. Other cities across the country held similar events, including Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Asheville.
Much has happened in the past year that participants say has amplified the need for change in state and federal government. They cited Trump’s harsh language toward Third World countries, his policy change that could send those brought to America illegally as children back to their countries of birth, and the creation of a federal office to support medical professionals’ desires to opt out of providing services that violate their religious or moral beliefs. Speakers at the rally also charged that Republican lawmakers who control the legislature are attempting to create a single-party state through gerrymandering districts and changing the rules for electing judges.
Ana Pardo, a campaign and outreach coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, spoke of being raised by a single mom who used government services such as food stamps and other safety-net programs to help keep the family together as she worked in low-paying jobs. As a result, Pardo, her siblings and their mom went to college and now have good-paying jobs.
Pardo said state and federal lawmakers are “gutting” those services and told the crowd to gaze upon the state legislative building at one end of the mall. As they did, she led them in a chant: “We are women and allies. We aren’t afraid. And we are going to win.”
Many attendees said they saw developments over the past year that are countering the impacts of Trump’s election. Sexual assault and harassment complaints are being taken more seriously after investigative reporting into such claims knocked movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly off their perches, and helped thwart Alabama Republican Roy Moore’s election bid to the U.S. Senate. (Two Democrats – U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota – have also resigned over sexual harassment allegations.)
Other special elections to Congress have shown an upswing in support for Democratic candidates, and a special prosecutor continues a probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian involvement in the presidential election.
Faith Markham of Cary attended the march last year with her daughter, Lily Pagan, and they returned for the rally. Pagan, 9, a fourth-grader at Highcroft Elementary School, held up a two-sided poster she made with several catchphrases. One said, “Little girls with dreams become women with vision.”
Markham said last year’s march was more about the anger Trump’s victory triggered. That was still evident Saturday, but most of the talk centered on taking action at the polls come November.
“This year,” she said, “I feel more momentum that things are going to happen.”